Monday, January 2, 2012

Sauteed Sheepshead, Savage Boleks Style

During a recent vacation, I went fishing with my beautiful Angel, Clare, and her parents in Orange Beach, Alabama.  We chartered a boat to fish along the shoreline in the Gulf of Mexico. We were looking for bull redfish, but we did not find any. Instead, we encountered Sheepshead, or Archosargus Probatocephalus.  The Sheepshead -- also known as Convict Fish and Bait Stealer -- lives up to its names. The Sheepshead will only go after shellfish.   We lost many a live shrimp bait to the Sheepshead, whose slight bite can go unnoticed by a distracted person.  Once we caught the bait-stealer, it revealed itself as revealed as a fish with a broad body with wide grey-black stripes on a white or off-white background, reminiscent of traditional prison garb.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Sheepshead is its teeth.  The fish has sheep-like incisors, which stick out a little like buck teeth.  The Sheepshead uses these teeth to eat, well, almost anything.  Small Sheepshead may eat plants.  As the fish grows, its diet changes to mollusks, such as clams, mussels and oysters, and small crabs.  Sheepshead may also eat other, small fish, such as croakers and anchovies.  The Sheepshead are found throughout the Gulf, usually hanging around rock jetties, piers, pilings and formations on the sea floor, where it can easily find its food. 

Both Clare and her dad, Frank, managed to catch a Sheephead during our fishing trip.  The fish were good examples of the Convict Fish, with their broad black stripes.  Once we got to shore, we had the fish cleaned and filleted.  As I watched our guide at work, I saw that the fish had a large, boney heads, and thick backbones.  Each Sheepshead fish produced two decent sized fillets and, moreover, a head and backbone that were very good for making stock.

With our dinner in hand, our thoughts turned to how we should prepare the Sheepshead. Both Frank and I agreed that it should be a simple saute, with salt, black pepper and a drizzle of lemon.  This would allow everyone to taste the fish.  We also decided that we would have a simple sauce for the fish.  The sauce would be made with a little white wine and some more stock.  We made the stock by using the heads and bones of the Sheepshead, along with the basics -- an onion, celery and carrots -- and some herbs (such as bay leaves and thyme).   

The final element came, indirectly, from the guide.  As he cleaned our fish, the guide noted that the fish had recently feasted on oysters, which were still in their stomachs.  With this information, we decided that we would add oysters to the sauce for the fish. This would allow the sauce to add an oyster flavor to the fish.

The end result was a delicious dish, although the sauce ended up being a little more like a jus.  The reason was two fold.  First, I wanted to maintain some liquid in the sauce to better cook the oysters.  Second, I did not want to add a lot of butter because I was trying to keep the dish as light as possible.  To get a thicker sauce, I would probably cook down the sauce more than I did.  In any event, the sauce accomplished its goal, which was to impart the flavor of oysters into the fish.

A Chef Bolek Collaboration with Frank Savage
Serves 4

Ingredients (for the Sheephead Stock):
Backbones and/or heads from 2 Sheepshead fish
Any other fish bones, fish heads, shrimp shells, etc.
1 onion
1 carrot
2-4 stalks of celery
2 bay leaves
15 cups of water
8 sprigs of fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon of salt
Ground pepper, to taste

Ingredients (for the Sheepshead fish):
Four fillets from 2 Sheepshead fish
1 pint of oysters, reserve the liqueur
2-3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Juice from 1 lemon
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
2 tablespoons of white wine
3 cups of Sheepshead stock
Ground pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste

1.  Make the Sheepshead stock.  Add the fish bones and/or fish heads, as well as any other bones, heads or shrimp shells, in a pot.  Add the water and raise the heat to high.  Bring the water to a boil and reduce to a simmer.  Let the water simmer for at least one hour.  Strain the stock, reserving the bones and the head.   Pick out the meat from the backbone and the head, setting that meat aside for later.  Take three cups of the stock and pour it into a smaller pot.  Bring the stock in the smaller pot to a boil and reduce by at least half, if not more.  You can use any remaining stock for other purposes, such as boiling shrimp, or you can freeze the stock for use in the future.

2.  Prepare the fish.  Grind salt and pepper over both sides.  Sprinkle the lemon juice over the fillets. 

3.  Saute the fish.  Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a saute pan over medium high heat.  Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the fish fillets.  Make sure not to overcrowd the pan and do the fillets in batches if necessary.  Saute the fish for about two to four minutes on each side (depending upon the size and thickness of the fillet) until the fish is opaque, but before it begins to break apart.  

4.  Prepare the sauce.  After the fish fillets have been sauteed, add the wine to deglaze the pan and cook until the alcohol has evaporated, about one to two minutes.  Add two cups of stock and the oyster liqueur.  Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Whisk the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, into the the sauce.  Reduce the sauce further until it reaches the desired consistency.  Salt and pepper to taste.

5.  Add the oysters and bits of Sheepshead meat.  Add the oysters and the Sheepshead meat to the sauce.  Turn off the heat.  Cook the oysters using the heat of the sauce until the edges of the oysters begin to curl and the oysters begin to turn opaque, about two to three minutes.  Flip the oysters and continue to cook them for about two to three minutes.  Turn back on the heat to a low setting if it takes a little longer to cook the oysters.  Remove the pan from the heat once the oysters have just turned opaque.

6.  Plate the fish.  Plate the fillet, spoon oysters over the fish or around the fish.  Spoon additional sauce over the fish and oysters.  Garnish with whole thyme leaves.  Serve immediately.


The key ingredients to this dish -- Sheepshead, Sheepshead stock, oysters, oyster liqueur -- all call for a pairing with white wine.  The question is whether the wine should be a lighter, fruitier wine or a more smooth, fuller-bodied wine.  In the end, I think the latter is probably better for this dish, because they can add a little sweetness, but also some richness.  If a smooth, richer white is chosen, make sure that the wine has not been aged in oak barrels.  Here are a couple of suggestions:   

L'Ecole No. 41 -- Columbia Valley Sémillon (2009). 
87% Sémillon, 13% Sauvignon Blanc.
Walla Walla, Washington, USA
Pear and apple tastes, with citrusy tartness.

Victor Hugo Vineyards -- Viognier (2009).
100% Viognier
Paso Robles AVA, California, USA
Melon and honey tastes, crisp with lighter body. 


If you would like more information about Sheepshead, check out Rod N' Reel or the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources

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